‘Kindred Spirits’ Take Intergenerational Communities for Foster Youth West

It was 2006, and in California Beth Fraker watched a recent episode of Dr. Phil recommended to her by a coworker. The show featured Judy Cockerton, founder of the Treehouse Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the child welfare system and promoting public investment in the nation’s most vulnerable children. Fraker watched closely as Cockerton spoke about the Treehouse Community she had created in western Massachusetts, a mini-town where elders and foster youth and families live together.

Judy Cockerton during her appearance on Dr. Phil. Photo courtesy of the Dr. Phil Show.
Judy Cockerton during her appearance on Dr. Phil. Photo courtesy of the Dr. Phil Show.

“I need to meet this woman,” Fraker thought.

Fraker, a marketing professional accustomed to tracking people down and cold-calling them, reached out to Cockerton soon after watching the Dr. Phil episode. At the time, Fraker was serving as the founder and executive director of Generations Together, a non-profit focused on intergenerational connections between foster youth and elders.

“You’re doing exactly what I want to do in California,” Fraker remembers saying.

Shortly after their phone conversation Fraker visited Cockerton at the then recently opened Treehouse Community in Easthampton, Mass. Cockerton had built a 100-plus community in the flatlands just east of the Berkshire Mountains – a place where senior citizens, adoptive families and foster youth all interacted on a daily basis, enriching each other’s lives.

“It was really exciting – how could something like this happen in my home state, in California?” Fraker recalls thinking.

Although she spent the first half of her career in the technology industry, Fraker always had a passion for at-risk youth, and had often volunteered as a mentor. Fraker was adopted, and briefly spent time in foster care.

“I had that stability of a permanent family that said ‘we are there for you,’” Fraker says. “My hope and dream was that every child who entered the foster care system would be chosen by a forever family.”

Both Fraker and Cockerton had been inspired by the Hope Meadows community in Illinois, a model intergenerational community that supports the well-being of both children “aging out” of foster care and senior citizens. Depending on individual state laws, foster youth age out of care at 18, 20 or 21 and are then left without a support system.

Both women visited Hope Meadows on separate occasions to gain a better understanding of the community’s practices.

While Cockerton focused on building the Treehouse Foundation and Community in Massachusetts, Fraker says she started talking to “anyone in California that would listen to me.”

In 2003, she formed Generations Together, a nonprofit dedicated to building multi-generational communities like Hope Meadows and Treehouse. Fraker’s quest led her to MidPen Housing, one of California’s largest and most established non-profit developers of affordable housing. MidPen Housing has partnered with over 40 municipal housing or community development agencies across 11 California counties.

Treehouse Communities foster intergenerational bonds. Photo courtesy of Treehouse.

“When I was introduced to MidPen I tried to build this community and it was stalled for other reasons, and I stepped in as MidPen’s Communications Director,” Fraker said.

In that role, Fraker was perfectly suited for the next stage in her dreams of creating a community where seniors feel the purpose of interacting with foster youth, while foster youth get the doting of a dozen or more veritable grandparents.

Fast forward ten years. Largely because of Fraker’s efforts, Treehouse has partnered with MidPen Housing to bring the model to the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I asked MidPen if they would be willing to invest in Treehouse, which is now ready to expand into California,” Fraker said.

Treehouse California and MidPen conducted a survey of the most viable counties to welcome the first Treehouse California and landed on Santa Clara County.

“Partnering with the MidPen Housing team to bring the intentional neighboring approach to Santa Clara County is a dream come true,” Cockerton says. Cockerton became involved with the child welfare system after becoming a foster parent in 1998 and realizing the vast dearth in programming and policy supports for the nation’s most vulnerable children. Cockerton founded the Treehouse Foundation in 2002, from which the Treehouse Community was born.

“I have always wanted to bring the Treehouse Community to California where the largest number of children and youth experiencing foster care reside,” Cockerton said.

“We applaud innovative programs like the Treehouse Foundation that support and celebrate foster, kinship and adoptive families that work to ensure that all children grow up surrounded by loving families and neighborhoods,” said Rafael López, commissioner of the federal Administration on Children, Youth and Families, in an email. “Treehouse’s multi-generational communities unite adoptive families with their elders, providing a unique support network that helps parents and children thrive.”

A home in the Treehouse Easthampton Community. Photo by Devon Ziminski.
A home in the Treehouse Easthampton Community. Photo by Devon Ziminski.

Beyond Treehouse California, the Treehouse Community model is also expanding to include Treehouse MetroWest in Boston and Treehouse Albany in New York. “We are so excited to be replicating all of its goodness in California, Massachusetts and New York,” Cockerton said.

“There’s a great interest in developing these communities around the country,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an organization that aims to improve the lives of children and older adults through intergenerational collaboration.

“Older adults don’t want to live in communities isolated with other adults, they want to still have a purpose in life … and an intergenerational community where they’re viewed as a resource and asset is great for them,” Butts said.

Treehouse California will expand the Treehouse model to include youth ages 18-24, “transition-age” youth who are close to or already have aged out of the foster care system. Foster care supports end at age 21 in California.

The community and housing model will rest on a two- to five-acre lot, with 18 family homes, 54 elder homes and 10 studios for transition-age youth. The community will feature a communal gathering space, community gardens, fitness center, commercial kitchen, computer lab and other amenities. Various programs and activities involving reading groups, cooking and nutrition classes and recreational sports will occur within the community.

Treehouse California has a four-pronged partnership guided by a highly collaborative approach to develop the new community. The partners include the Treehouse Foundation, MidPen Housing, the County of Santa Clara Department of Social Services and a to-be-determined child welfare partner. The child welfare partner will be a private agency set to provide onsite case management, child welfare services and supports for all Treehouse youth.

“With MidPen by my side I am confident that we will successfully meet the needs of children, youth, families and elders in the Bay Area where I grew up,” Cockerton says.

A view of Treehouse Circle. Photo courtesy of Treehouse.
A view of Treehouse Circle. Photo courtesy of Treehouse.

Development and building costs for the Treehouse California community will be secured by MidPen Housing through a combination of public and private sources including tax credits.

Rental income from residents will cover property maintenance and management and the Santa Clara County Department of Children and Families will cover the cost of three full-time social workers. Treehouse will raise approximately $350,000 annually through grants, donations and earned revenue.

Leading up to the unveiling of Treehouse California, Treehouse seeks to secure $750,00 to cover costs through 2018 for predevelopment, basic operating expenses and expansion into California.

Across time and distance, Beth and Judy’s friendship has fueled their combined passion for generating change in the child welfare system. The friendship “has been one of the most special relationships in my life. As a colleague, mentor, partner, Judy and I are kindred spirits,” Fraker says.

“We both have this passion for two things: that every child in foster care be connected to a lifelong family, and to re-envision foster care in America.”

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Devon Ziminski
About Devon Ziminski 23 Articles
Devon is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow. She writes about gun violence, mental health, adoption policy and practice, and education.

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